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Parental Espionage

Parental Espionage

Domestic spying is coming to a living room near you.

Mike and Tia Baye began spying on their son, Adam, seven months after his best friend committed suicide. As their 16-year-old quit his hockey team, broke curfew and holed up in his bedroom to surf the Internet, the couple tried everything to break him out of his rut.

All their efforts having failed, they decided on a drastic step: installing top-notch espionage software on his computer. Chat records, e-mails, and screen shots poured in, revealing more than they ever wanted to know about their son. The software also revealed enough clues to help them determine what went wrong—which is where bestselling mystery author Harlan Coben really begins his story.

The family in his novel, Hold Tight, may be fictional, but Coben is no fantasy writer. As in former books like Promise Me, The Woods, and Tell No One, he has rendered a plausible parenting scenario in the pages of his suburban nightmare.

What potential catastrophe justifies clandestine parental monitoring? Hold Tight may not hold the answer. But a New York Times op-ed that Coben wrote on parent-spy technology takes sides. “Some will say that you should simply trust your child,” he writes, “but surrendering parental responsibility to a machine that allows the entire world access to your home borders on negligence.” Spying is a legitimate option, he contends, though he stops short of advocating it for everyone.

It’s a position he presses when I meet him for coffee in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the affluent Manhattan suburb where he resides. “A parent has a right to be looking at this stuff,” he says. “Kids should act like they’re being spied upon on the Internet because they are. It’s not a bastion of privacy.” Like many stories Coben writes, the idea for Hold Tight came from his surroundings – on this occasion, a dinner conversation with a friend, who admitted to installing tracking software on his teenage son’s computer. Coben was initially repulsed by the idea, but after doing research and thinking more about it, he started to change his mind. “I realized it was a gray area,” he says. “And I had a lot of fun playing with that gray area.”

Spying programs with names like Net Nanny, IAmBigBrother and PC Tattletale began appearing about seven years ago to tap the market of worried parents. The programs cost anywhere from $30 to $100 and offer terrific tracking abilities, allowing the user to read email and chats, decode passwords, and capture screen shots of websites. It is nearly the same espionage technology used by governments to spy on civilians and foreigners, and it is heralded by some of the most outspoken anti-pedophile activists as an essential tool in the ongoing crackdown on Internet-based crimes against children.

It’s real life stories like that of Mary Kozakiewicz that drive parents to the extremes of parental surveillance. On New Years Day 2002 her daughter Alicia, 13, disappeared without a trace. An FBI tip led police to a 36-year old man’s house four days later, where they found her in his basement chained with a dog collar around her neck, molested and abused. She had met the man online eight months earlier. “After that, for a year and a half we didn’t have Internet,” Kozakiewicz says. “I slept with the laptop under my pillow.”

When her family finally went back online it was with new vigilance. She used NetNanny to monitor all Internet activity, and later graduated to SpectorPro. She now spearheads the Surviving Parents Coalition, a lobby group that advocates for legislation to combat child pornography and child sex offenders. Her daughter’s terrifying ordeal is among the more extreme cases of Internet-based child assault. Even so, she believes the torrent of news media focusing on child predators—criticized by some observers as over-the-top—is more than substantiated. And she believes every parent should own spy software, and should use it clandestinely, likening it to a deadbolt on the front door—a necessary precaution. “It’s a question of freedom, privacy, and safety,” she says. “But with the risk of what happened to my daughter out there, stick it on the computer.”

Despite his op-ed, Coben is not nearly so enthusiastic an advocate for the software, insisting that he could as easily argue that it ropes in kids too much, gives them no room to rebel, and erodes the delicate balance of trust between parent and child. He also suggests that if parents decide to put spyware on the computer, they should probably notify their kids. “This is maybe to avoid a catastrophe,” he says. “This isn’t about figuring out where your kids are on the pecking order. If you’re doing it to be nosy, you have enough trouble with your kids.”

Of course, who knows what kinds of catastrophes are out there unless you monitor your kids to find out? Parents who buy the software often have concerns about the Internet’s dangers, but end up using it to keep tabs on their kids’ day-to-day activities. Interestingly, many who advocate for clandestine monitoring say it can be a boost to communication between icy teens and their parents.

“I think it would be appropriate if the relationship between the parent and kid were already strained, where there’s not a lot of communication,” says Tim Levert, a pastor in Maryland who recommends the software to parishioners. “If I see things they’re doing online, I can think – What am I not doing? What can I do to help me better connect with my kids?”

Though Levert doesn’t yet spy on his three younger kids, others do so with their teens without much hesitation. Steven, a police officer in New Jersey, suspected that his 17-year old daughter was having sex with her older boyfriend. He put the software on her computer without her knowledge for two weeks.

Sure enough, he discovered her daughter had planned “a liaison” one afternoon, when she should have been at school. He followed them out of the school and confronted them.

“There was no denying it, no saying she was only cutting school,” he says. “We were able to use irrefutable proof of what she was doing.” As punishment, Steven kept his daughter in near-total isolation. He grounded her for a month, forbid her computer access, cancelled her text messaging, and limited her TV to just a few channels. He says it changed their relationship for the better. “We obtained the effect we were looking for,” he says. “It was funny – given the absence of peer pressure, you could see her turn back to her old self.”

Of course, these practical testimonials don’t address the ethical propriety of this software. Just because a child may be veering away from house rules and family values, does that make it right to spy?

Larry Rosen, a psychologist and author of a parenting handbook Me, MySpace, and I, says that “technological solutions” are not unhelpful, but should never be used without a child’s knowledge. “Some parents think that slapping some sort of technology on their kid’s computer is parenting. Sadly, it’s not,” he says. “It is a way for them to feel less helpless. And that’s not the right way.”

His research suggests the behaviors spying parents most fear – depression, low self-esteem, and Internet addiction – often stem from an authoritarian parenting environment. And it tends to be authoritarian parents who resort to tracking software, he says.

One irony in this debate is that spying isn’t needed to access the reams of information kids put online for all to see. Shrewd parents, not to mention college recruiters and employers, have begun poring over Facebook and MySpace profiles, causing teens to rein in their own Internet activity. Of course, public profiles don’t afford access to e-mail messages and online chats. But as parental spying becomes more common, it’s easy to imagine it becoming less effective too.

Already every tracking software innovation brings a website with tips on how to work around it. And advances in mobile phones make it likely that tomorrow’s teens won’t need a computer to chat with friends or update their Facebook profile, particularly since kids are often savvier about newer technologies than their parents.

Whether the technological gap separating parents and teens widens or shrinks, Hold Tight will be around to remind us of this particular Internet age moment. Adam eventually discovers his parents are spying on him, and feels crushed and betrayed. His parents, who used the information they gleaned to save their son from gun-toting Goths and a dangerous drug circle, are ultimately glad that they spied.

The author doesn’t use spyware himself, though his 14-year old daughter is “troubled” by the idea that it may one day be installed in the Coben home. It’s a question of the parenting choice that Coben eventually makes about a technology he’s brought into the limelight, though without any other agenda, he says, than the bottom line. “I don’t want to change the way people raise their kids,” he says. “I want you to take this book on vacation and not leave your hotel room. If it makes you think about it, fine. But I have no answers.”


Pick up Issue 33 of Maisonneuve for Kelly Ebbels' feature on the Quartier des spectacles controversy.

Read her follow-up piece "Mile-End vs. Morality Squad"